What to Expect on a Vegetarian Diet

vegetarian foods

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Adopting a vegetarian diet is one of the easiest ways to boost your intake of plant-based foods. Plant-based eating is increasingly associated with a wide range of benefits including a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and other health conditions. But not all vegetarian diets are completely plant-based.

If you're considering a vegetarian diet, evaluate the different options available to you, as well as the health benefits and concerns you'll need to take into account as you transition to the eating style.

What to Eat

In general, a healthy vegetarian diet excludes most animal foods and includes more legumes, soy products, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Based on the type of vegetarian diet you choose, you might also include other foods.

  • Lacto vegetarians consume dairy products and plant-based foods
  • Ovo vegetarians consume eggs and plant-based foods
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume eggs, dairy products, and plant-based foods

Lacto-ovo vegetarians make up the most popular branch of the eating style.

Compliant Foods

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Grains

  • Legumes, beans, lentils

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Soy-based products

  • Plant-based oils

  • Eggs (lacto-ovo and ovo)

  • Dairy products (lacto-ovo and lacto)

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Meat and poultry

  • Fish and seafood

  • Animal by-products

Compliant Foods

Vegetables

To maintain good nutrition on a vegetarian diet, you'll build meals around a wide variety of vegetables. Many vegetarian recipes replace meat with hearty vegetables such as eggplant, mushrooms, and cauliflower to make the meal filling and satisfying. Vegetables can easily be used in traditional dishes including casseroles, soups, or pasta dishes such as lasagna.

You'll boost your protein intake by adding vegetables like spinach, peas, Brussels sprouts, and kale to your diet. And veggies like collard greens and okra, are high in calcium—a nutrient that is important for vegetarians who don't consume dairy.

Fruit

Fruit provides healthy fiber and other nutrients that are important on a vegetarian diet. Strawberries, figs, and oranges, for example, provide calcium. And fortified orange juice can also boost your calcium intake.

Prune juice provides iron and dried fruit such as apricots, raisins and prunes can also help you meet your daily iron needs. Combine dried fruits with nuts to make a hearty protein-rich snack.

Fruit can also be used to replace other sweet treats that may contain non-vegetarian ingredients. For example, bananas can be used instead of eggs to make pancakes. Frozen fruit can be mashed, whipped, and frozen to be enjoyed as an ice-cream substitute.

Grains

Grains play an important role in a healthy vegetarian diet. Choosing whole grains rather than refined grains will help you to reach your recommended intake of protein and other nutrients, including B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium.

Quinoa, for example, is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. These are amino acids that must be consumed in the diet because your body doesn't make them. Other high-protein grains include amaranth, oats, wild rice, and buckwheat.

Building meals around grains will also help you to feel full and satisfied after eating. Whole grains are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber which take longer for your body to digest. A diet rich in fiber is also associated with health benefits including a decreased risk of coronary artery disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other health conditions.

Legumes

Legumes, including peas, beans, and lentils, are an important component in a vegetarian diet because they are nutritious, inexpensive, versatile, and easy to store. Legumes are naturally low in fat and provide fiber, protein, other nutrients including folate, magnesium, potassium, and iron.

Legumes also contain resistant starch—a form of starch that is not digested in the small intestine but rather passes directly to the large intestine where it feeds healthy bacteria.

Because legumes can be cooked in advance and added to soups, salads, and other dishes they make a smart substitute for meat if you follow a vegetarian diet. When choosing beans consider buying dried beans (in bags or in bulk) or canned beans that don't contain added sodium.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are a good source of protein and healthy fat in a vegetarian diet. Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds can be added to smoothies, dairy-free yogurt, salads, and other dishes for flavor and crunch.

Also, foods made from nuts and seeds are a smart staple to keep on hand. Nut butters (such as peanut butter or almond butter) can easily replace dairy butter or cheese spreads. There are also vegetarian cheese products that are made from nuts.

If you are a vegetarian that does not consume milk, you'll find milk-alternatives in most grocery stores that are made from almonds, cashews, and other nuts.

Soy-Based Products

Soybeans and soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk are often consumed in a vegetarian diet. Firm tofu can be sliced or cubed and prepared as you would prepare lean meat, such as chicken breast. Grill it, fry it, or add it to stir fry to boost your protein intake. Soft or silken tofu can be added to smoothies, custards, and even used as an egg substitute.

Edamame—soybeans that are not yet mature—are commonly boiled, salted, and eaten plain. Mature soybeans can be roasted and consumed as a snack or used as an ingredient in other foods.

You'll also find soy-based yogurt products, soy ice cream, soy protein powders, and soy protein bars.

Plant-Based Oils

Plant-based oils include olive oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, flaxseed oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, and many others. These oils remain liquid at room temperature and provide polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which are linked to many health benefits including reduced triglyceride levels, a lower risk of heart disease, and reduced risk for stroke.

Because these oils contain nine calories per gram like other fats, they should be consumed in moderation. However, since you don't consume animal products (and may not consume dairy) on a vegetarian diet, your total fat intake is likely to be lower than on a traditional omnivore diet. Therefore consuming healthy fat may be less of a concern.

Eggs and Dairy

If your vegetarian eating style includes eggs and dairy products, you may have an easier time meeting your protein needs. One large egg provides six grams of protein along with vitamin D (important for the absorption of calcium), phosphorus, and vitamin A.

One cup of skim milk provides about nine grams of protein and about 35% of your recommended daily intake of calcium. Most milk alternatives provide less protein and less calcium.

If you don't consume eggs or dairy, it is important to read labels to make sure that the products you buy don't contain these ingredients. Eggs and dairy are often in baked goods, pasta, soups, and other common foods.

Non-Compliant Foods

Meat and Poultry

When you shift to a vegetarian diet, you will completely eliminate meat and poultry from your diet. This includes red meat (such as bison or beef), chicken, turkey, pork, duck, and other animal flesh.

Meat alternatives, including meatless burgers, sausage, chicken and turkey substitutes, are widely available in most grocery stores. Some products are made from vegetables, while others are made from grains, lentils, or soy.

Keep in mind that not all alternative meat products are necessarily healthy. In some cases, meatless products contain more fat, sodium, and other additives than their meat counterparts, so it is important to read nutrition labels when making a choice.

Fish and Seafood

Fish and seafood are generally not consumed on a vegetarian diet, although some consider the pescatarian diet to be a variation of a vegetarian diet. Pescatarians avoid meat and poultry but include fish and seafood as part of their eating plan.

Seafood alternatives are available in some markets. Products like crabless cakes, fishless filets, and other substitutes are often made from textured protein and other ingredients.

Animal By-Products

Animal by-products are foods that include ingredients sourced from animals. For example, gelatin (commonly used to make fruit gels, pudding, candy, marshmallows, cakes, ice cream, and yogurt) is sometimes made by boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones of animals. Other animal-based ingredients to look for include whey, casein, lactose, egg whites, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids, rennet, and some forms of vitamin D3.

Not all vegetarians avoid animal by-products. Vegans (vegetarians who consume no eggs, dairy, or honey) avoid these ingredients. Your decision to include them or not may depend on your reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet. The ingredients are not likely to make a substantial difference in your overall nutritional intake, but if you choose a vegetarian lifestyle for reasons related to the ethical treatment of animals you may choose to avoid animal by-products.

Recommended Timing

You don't need to follow any specific meal timing practice when you begin a vegetarian diet. However, if you currently consume a traditional American diet, the timing of your transition may impact your success.

Many experts recommend a gradual approach. For example, try going meatless one day each week. On that day, experiment with a vegetarian recipe and try new ingredients. As you get more comfortable with the eating style, start reducing your meat, seafood, dairy, and egg intake on other days of the week.

Other experts recommend that you adopt a flexitarian diet first. A flexitarian diet is a modified vegetarian diet that allows you to eat meat on some limited occasions. Once you are comfortable with the flexitarian eating style, you can consider whether or not to fully adopt a vegetarian diet.

Resources and Tips

A vegetarian diet may require more work when you first begin, simply because you need to be more thoughtful in your shopping, cooking, and meal planning habits. Dining out may also be challenging. But as plant-based eating becomes more popular, restaurants and grocery stores are increasingly adding vegetarian choices. However, if you follow a strict vegetarian diet, you still need to be careful about reading labels or asking questions.

Food Labeling

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the use of the word "vegetarian" on food labels. Since there is no standard definition of what constitutes a vegetarian food, you may experience confusion when purchasing groceries.

The Vegetarian Resource Group provides a chart of some of the vegetarian labels that you may see on products in the store. The chart provides detailed information about the standards used to evaluate food ingredients and whether or not food manufacturers are charged for providing the label. Just because a food doesn't contain a vegetarian label doesn't mean that it isn't vegetarian. In some cases, adding the label is too costly for small food manufacturers.

In most cases, eating whole foods or foods that are closest to their whole form (such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds) will provide the best assurance that your food choices align with a vegetarian eating style.

When buying processed or packaged foods, read the ingredients list to make sure that the food you choose aligns with your chosen food plan.

Nutrition Guides

Some people who transition to a vegetarian diet have concerns about meeting their nutritional needs when they eliminate meat and dairy. It may be harder for you to get enough protein, for example, when you first eliminate meat from your diet. And if you eliminate dairy, meeting your daily recommended intake of calcium can be challenging.

To help make sure that you get the nutrition you need, the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services included a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern as part of their 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guide provides recommendations for the intake of various food groups such as green leafy vegetables, starchy vegetables, legumes and beans, soy products, and others. Recommended amounts are provided for daily caloric intakes ranging from 1000 to 3,200 calories per day. This guide can be a helpful tool when organizing a well-rounded and nutritious vegetarian meal plan.

Modifications

Grains play an important role in a vegetarian diet. For that reason, those who follow a gluten-free diet will need to be especially careful when adopting this meal plan.

First, it is important to choose gluten-free grains such as corn, buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice, millet, sorghum, teff, amaranth, and rice. Next, you need to be sure that the grain or grain product you choose is not manufactured or packaged in a facility that also processes gluten-containing grains. For example, oats are inherently gluten-free but are frequently contaminated with wheat during growing or processing, according to the Oldways Whole Grain Council.

Lastly, there are some vegetarians who are concerned about combining foods during meals and snacks in order to create complete proteins. Complete proteins contain the nine essential amino acids that your body needs to keep your digestive processes, immune system, muscles, and bones, functioning properly.

However, recent evidence has shown that careful combining is not necessary. By eating a varied and nutritious diet (such as the one outlined by the USDA) your body will get the amino acids that it needs in appropriate amounts.

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Article Sources

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